On May 7, 1995, when Jacques Chirac was elected President of France, a wave of joy spread across Paris as the victor drove through the city in his old Citroën CX.
M Chirac’s supporters held a party in the Place de la Concorde, although the man himself went off on his own. He visited his friends, the millionaire businessman François Pinault and his wife, Mayvonne, and then he disappeared with his latest female conquest.
However, he emerged from the election a changed man. There was no jubilation on his face or in his voice as the 22nd President of the French Republic, in his first official speech, called for a “vigorous, impartial, self-disciplined state that is careful about the use of public money — a state that does not isolate those who govern from those who have elected them”.
It is almost cruel to recall those words, given that Chirac has left the state exactly where he found it — not vigorous, impartial or self-disciplined.
As he has aged he has turned into the personification of the decline of France and the powerlessness of the country’s authorities. His is a very French story, set against a background of bluster and U-turns.
M Chirac has never put his calls for a “modest state” into practice, at the Elysée Palace, where he lives and works, or anywhere else. He believes that one has to do what is right. For him, that means always consuming the best wine and the finest champagne. In the 11 years of his reign the budget of the President’s office has increased from €3.3 million to €31.9 million (£22 million).
He has lived for too long in a virtual world, far removed from reality. Since 1977, when he became Mayor of Paris, he has always been fed and housed like royalty — although, with him, “housed” is a relative concept.
For years Jean-Claude Laumond, his chauffeur, would wait almost every evening to take him off in the Citroën CX. From 8pm onwards you could contact M Chirac only through M Laumond, a cheerful character with a great, open laugh; an ace behind the steering wheel as he drove at breakneck speed through the capital.
The President’s wife, Bernadette, hated M Laumond, and it is easy to understand why. The chauffeur and her husband made an odd couple and their conspiratorial ways left no doubt that they were off for a good time on their nocturnal rounds.
As soon as her husband became President, Mme Chirac launched a campaign to get rid of M Laumond. For two years she was unsuccessful. Then, in 1997, on the night that Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in the Alma tunnel in Paris, the Minister of the Interior could not reach the President on the telephone.
Mme Chirac blamed M Laumond. After this and other similar incidents, Mme Chirac won the backing of her daughter, Claude, and claimed the head of the man nicknamed “the chauffeur of pleasures”. M Laumond was banished.
Mme Chirac has hinted that she thought about leaving her husband at one stage. But she stayed with him because, she said, she had a good dose of determination, tenacity and perseverance.
Regarding her marriage to M Chirac, she said: “My father told me, ‘You are his centre point’, and events have proved him right. My husband has always come back to his centre point. Anyway, I've always warned him: the day that Napoleon left Josephine, he lost everything.”
M Chirac is happy to confirm her thesis. “We men are like the Cro-Magnon people of prehistoric times,” he once told me. “We're always hunting and wenching. But, at the end of the day, we always go back to our caves. For my part I need this cave to feel at ease with myself. Without it I would be as unhappy as could be.” He cannot do without his wife. He calls her often, five or six times a day, sometimes more.
When he cannot reach her immediately, he wants her news from the secretary, the chauffeur or the attending police officer. Then he tells someone to fetch her. Wherever she is, she must answer him. M Chirac is an ogre who swallows everything gluttonously: men, women, ideas, kilometres, romances, defeats, scrapes and, of course, food.
He eats enough to feed the Indian Army, starting with a breakfast fit for a siege. But by 10.30am, he requires more sustenance.
So he has a snack of pâté or cold meat sandwiches, complete with pickled gherkins. A four-course lunch follows, then more sandwiches for tea before, finally, a four-course dinner.
“I have to feel full up,” this great gullet said. That is why he particularly likes old-fashioned dishes, such as calfshead with ravigote sauce.
This is all washed down with five or six beers a day. As he does not mind punch, either, he sometimes has one too many. But he always sleeps it off with great dignity.
M Chirac believes that he is “condemned to eat without stopping. When I’m hungry, which happens several times a day, I become aggressive and even belligerent”.
The tragedy of his presidency is that the brave hussar of the 1970s and the 1980s has developed into a placid character with no ambition other than to be liked. The head of state has adopted a policy of paternalistic, social conservatism and has never wavered from it. He wants to be the father of the nation and is determined not to cause anyone any trouble.
A few days after M Chirac’s centre-right supporters had suffered an historic defeat in the 2004 regional elections, François Fillon, the Minister for Social Affairs, told him: “If we were beaten . . . it is because we don’t have a clear line and we seem to be making up policies from day to day.”
M Chirac gave the minister an icy stare before delivering his traditional speech on the social fragility of France. “Don’t forget,” he said. “The unions can block everything at the drop of a hat.”
It is impossible to persuade him otherwise, and that, perhaps, is M Chirac’s greatest failing. The man who used to change with the wind is now stuck in a rut. When he has an idea, he cannot get it out of his head.
His rigidity can even be comical, as demonstrated by a story told by M Fillon about the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the pride of the French Navy.
"There’s a problem, Jacques,” M Fillon once said to M Chirac. “The Charles de Gaulle was built on the cheap. It has a cruising speed of 27 knots, when our other aircraft carriers can reach 32 knots.”
“That’s wrong,” M Chirac said. “I ordered the Charles de Gaulle myself and I know it can go at 32 knots.” M Fillon checked with the commander-in-chief of the Navy, who confirmed the maximum speed of 27 knots. He then informed the President.
“We could have left it there," M Fillon said. “But that’s not like M Chirac. When we met, he grabbed my arm and said to me, “Listen, the Charles de Gaulle will go at 32 knots . . . There’s no doubt about it. I know what commanders-in-chief are like. They’re all liars’.”
After years of listening to discordant voices and retreating into his own clan, Chirac hears only what he wants to hear. The result is that he does not hear anything about anything.
He should have reformed the French social model, but he was happy to put it into deep freeze on the fallacious pretext that the whole world dreamt of having the same thing.
But why would the world be jealous of a system in which one person in ten has no work and one in five no training, where job insecurity runs alongside one of the highest unemployment rates of any developed country?
It is a social, economic and moral failure, but apparently it does not trouble the conscience — or the digestion — of the President. Through cowardice as much as blindness, he persists in following policies that have led the country to ruin over the past 20 years.
As his reign nears its end, M Chirac has few people around him. You can count his friends on one hand, as the number of guests invited to the birthday party his daughter organises for him demonstrates each year. You only ever find celebrities that he has bumped into at cocktails, with glass in hand, such as the singer Johnny Hallyday, the comic Muriel Robin, the entertainer Patrick Sébastien or the actress Michèle Laroque.
If it were not for his grandson, Martin, whose drawings the President piles up on his desk at the Elysée, he would be devoid of family and friendship.
The Elysée is nothing more than a great empty palace, where the President is cut off from everything. Each meeting is a torture, and so is each outing.
M Chirac knows that he is scrutinised by everyone and, despite his attempts to camouflage his troubles, he cannot hide the mixture of lethargy and sadness that invaded his brain after he suffered a minor stroke last September. He struggles to find his words, so he is never separated from his crib sheets.
The President has finally realised that he is not immortal. For a long time he thought that he could always master the elements. He even claimed to have supernatural healing powers. One day, for example, he learnt that the wife of Xavier Darcos, who went on to become Overseas Co-operation Minister, had cancer. The President asked to see her "alone for a quarter of an hour with her baby”. After the meeting he told Darcos: “I acquired from my father a gift that enables me to know whether people are in good health merely by shaking their hands. Your wife is saved.”
That is M Chirac through and through: a believer, fatalistic and rustic. He is superstitious as well. He has spent his life doing everything in his power to help the sick, rushing to be by the bedside of the dying, kissing the dead on the forehead.
His own turn has come. He is waiting for it sadly, with legs that are shaking, not out of fear but out of tiredness at the end of such a long journey.
· La Tragédie du Président: Scènes de la Vie Politique, 1986-2006, by Franz-Olivier Giesbert, is published by Flammarion